We often regard viruses as the harbingers of disease, whether the common cold or more serious problems such as meningitis. However, many naturally-occurring viruses can work to our benefit. Amongst these are bacteriophages, a family of viruses that normally infects only microbes. We are using research technologies to exploit them for human therapeutic benefit.
Our body has an abundance of associated bacteria – particularly in the large intestine - which aid greatly in our existence unless their natural balance is upset. In the case of the large intestine there is a substantial population of bacteria (more than a kilogram in weight and about 100 trillion in number). These help to digest key dietary constituents and produce small molecules that assist our metabolism and physiology. They have the ability to convert plant flavonoids into a form (aglycone) that may be more beneficial to our health, or to activate drugs such as olsalazine in the exact location needed to help treat inflammatory bowel disease.
This population of microorganisms - the ''gut microbiome'' – is immensely important to our health, and as mentioned if the balance goes awry it may contribute to the discomfort or even development of disease. That might be simple diarrhea, but more serious possibilities include inflammation and cancer, and recent evidence suggests that even neurological diseases may have their origin in disturbance to the gut microbiome. These natural occupants are important.
Along with the bacteria in the intestine is a less-well-understood but even more numerous component of the microbiome, a community of viruses that infect the plentiful bacteria. These are bacteriophages and in the case of the large intestine (colon) are also called coliphages.
We are working with an expert in bacteriophages, Dr Roderick Slavcev, and his laboratory to generate new models and technologies that may exploit this under-recognised part of our living world. We are aiming to understand (i) how these phages may alter the population of bacteria, with possible effects on health and disease, and (ii) how bacteriophages can be engineered to become therapeutics in a novel, safer and "more natural" form of gene therapy.
We have been working to develop this approach for practical use through Mediphage Bioceuticals Inc (MBI), a local biotechnology company founded to exploit technology possible through the genetic engineering and manipulation of bacteriophages. MBI seeks to apply phages and phage-encoded genetic systems toward the design of novel therapeutics and production platforms. Of particular note are iPHAGEs, which are intelligent PHage-Assembled Gene Expression systems that have great promise in the therapeutic approach to cancer.
Hayden working with the bacteriophages: